The most striking feature of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was the amazing, young, Internet-enabled movement he mobilized to get elected. The most striking feature of Obama’s presidency a year later is how thoroughly that movement has disappeared.
In part, it disappeared because the Obama team let it disappear, as Obama moved to pass what was necessary — the economic stimulus — and what he aspired to — health care — by exclusively working with Congress. The president seems to have thought that his majorities in the Senate and the House were so big that he never really had to mobilize “the people” to drive his agenda. And, at the same time, that movement went dormant on its own, apparently thinking that just getting the first African-American elected as president was the moon shot of this generation, and nothing more was necessary.
Well, here’s my free advice to Obama: If you think that a populist backlash against bankers is a good idea, you’re wrong. Please, please re-regulate the banks in a smart way. But remember: In the long run, Americans don’t rally to angry politicians. They do not bring out the best in them. Americans rally to inspirational, hopeful ones. They bring out the best in them. And right now Americans need to be at their best.
Obama should launch his own moon shot. What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. It needs to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. It needs to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making the pie bigger, the year of “Startup America.”
Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his Number 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Startup America is his moon shot.
And to reignite his youth movement, he should make sure every American kid knows about two programs that he has already endorsed: The first is National Lab Day. Introduced last November by a coalition of educators and science and engineering associations, Lab Day aims to inspire a wave of future innovators, by pairing veteran scientists and engineers with students in elementary and high schools to inspire thousands of hands-on science projects around the country.
The president should also vow to bring the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, to every low-income neighborhood in America. NFTE works with middle- and high-school teachers to help them teach entrepreneurship. The centerpiece of its program is a national contest for startups with 24,000 kids participating. Each student has to invent a product or service, write up a business plan and then do it. NFTE (www.NFTE.com) works only in low-income areas, so many of these new entrepreneurs are minority kids.
This year’s three finalists, said Amy Rosen, the chief executive of NFTE, “were an immigrant’s son who took a class from H&R Block and invented a company to do tax returns for high school students, a young woman who taught herself how to sew and designed custom-made dresses, and the winner was an African-American boy who manufactured socially meaningful T-shirts.”
You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs. Obama should have focused on that from Day 1. He must focus on that for Year 2.